Meet MANA Nutrition, the Charlotte company that is saving children’s lives around the world

By Tina Irgang

Photography courtesy of MANA Nutrition

Moore and Harmon

MANA co-founders Mark Moore (left) and David Todd Harmon

One day, Mark Moore found himself at a Walmart in Georgia, looking at jars of peanut butter. He had been hatching a plan to manufacture a fortified food based on peanuts that could be used to save the lives of severely malnourished children.

“My idea was, we have to do this in Georgia, because they have lots of peanuts,” says Moore. “I just went to Walmart and looked at who made peanut butter. Then I went around pestering them.”

Moore’s pitch? Peanut butter has gone from a nutritious snack to an allergy trigger that is being banned from more and more schools. So how about some positive publicity for your company, in the form of a life-saving food? “They already have a giant factory, so how hard can it be to buy a few packaging machines?” he says.

It didn’t work out. “They were all nice to me, but I always joke that it was like showing up and telling people, ‘Hey, my name is Mark and I’m going to the moon. All I need is a rocket ship.’ People were like, ‘You don’t look like an astronaut.’”

The spark of an idea

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A mother administers MANA to her child.

Today, Moore is CEO of Matthews, NC-based MANA Nutrition, but back then, he didn’t have much experience as a businessman. Out of college, he had moved to Uganda with his wife — a stint that was meant to last three years, but turned into 10. He returned to the U.S. for graduate school, and then landed a job in the Washington, DC, office of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, as a subject-matter expert on Africa. That’s when he first heard about ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF).

“It really became a big thing about 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s a new phenomenon in food aid. Because it’s ready to use, you can take some of the things we have, like peanuts, which are high in protein and calories and are good for kids, blend them with milk and add some vitamins, and stick them in a packet.” The packets are sealed against light and oxygen exposure, giving them a long shelf life.

RUTF, originally developed by international nonprofit Doctors Without Borders, was being hailed as a potentially game-changing invention for severely malnourished children. Before that, severe acute malnutrition in children was being treated with instant formula, which had a number of issues, says Moore. For one, formula has to be mixed with water, and safe water may not be available in many areas. “Even if you mix it with good water, you have a shelf-life issue. Then the third issue is, beyond shelf life, if you give moms in Ethiopia or Nigeria a bag of milk, the chance that they would mix it appropriately to the size of the kid’s stomach is pretty low,” Moore adds.

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Packages of MANA’s RUTF product. MANA has the advantage that it doesn’t have to be mixed with clean water before consumption.

The problem with RUTF, however, was that it was only being produced in France. “It’s hard for the U.S. government to buy a lot of this when it’s not made in the U.S. A lot of food aid laws require us not to take U.S. tax dollars and spend them abroad,” says Moore. “That’s how I got the idea.”

Setting out on his own

That’s how Moore found himself traveling around Georgia’s peanut country in 2009. When it became clear the big peanut processors weren’t willing to host an RUTF operation, Moore and his friend David Todd Harmon, who had come on board to help launch the business, switched course: They would build their own factory and manufacture RUTF themselves.

Moore and Harmon started to request meetings with nonprofits, and they made their pitch with high-profile organizations such as the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Some of the groups that we pitched weren’t going to invest, but they did like us,” says Moore. So word started to spread, and eventually, investments rolled in.

Altogether, Moore and Harmon, now COO of MANA Nutrition, raised $13 million, which allowed them to break ground on their factory. The idea of producing the food in Georgia stuck around, and today, MANA’s factory is located in Fitzgerald, GA, and employs about 60 people. Moore, Harmon and a few other executives are based in Matthews for ease of travel.

Once the factory was built, Moore and his team reached out to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and UNICEF, in hopes that they would buy and distribute MANA’s product. The agencies agreed to come and audit the factory, and about six months later, MANA had all the necessary approvals, says Moore.

A unique business model

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Workers at MANA’s Georgia facility

Today, MANA’s factory can produce as much as 121,000 pounds of RUTF per day — enough to feed about 4,000 children over the recommended treatment cycle of six weeks, according to MANA’s website. A range of partners, including World Vision and Save The Children, distribute MANA’s product in 35 countries around the world.

The company’s business model is a key part of its success. On the one hand, MANA is structured as a nonprofit. “We felt like, to be trusted in the industry and the market, a nonprofit would give us the right platform,” says Harmon.

At the same time, MANA operates as a business — buying ingredients to manufacture its product, which it then sells to organizations like USAID and UNICEF. However, the company’s profits are folded right back into its working capital. That capital totals between $3 million and $4 million at the moment, says Moore.

“Most of our funding has been loans, but our investors, paying them back is really about our performance,” says Harmon. “Folks want to see us make an impact. … Our investors hold our feet to the fire and make sure we operate like a business. It’s kind of like a hedge fund that has a foundation.”

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MANA is specially formulated for children who are so severely malnourished that they no longer feel hungry.

At the same time, Moore adds, MANA gets about $1 million in donations a year, although the organization doesn’t fundraise actively. “We don’t issue press releases or beg people for money — we just respond to people who hear about us.”

MANA also prides itself on its transparency, which is one of the company’s five core values (along with quality, innovation, responsibility and sustainability).

For example, MANA is happy to let other food manufacturers tour its factory. “We’re open-door. Come in and take pictures, talk to our engineer and our plant manager,” says Harmon. “A lot of our competitors now have become partners, folks we’re collaborating with.”

Transparency also rules internally. Once, MANA paid its people for a whole month in advance, but let them know that this was all the money it had until it finalized a pending deal with investors, Harmon recalls. “We told them upfront, we’d love for you to stick around, but we realize some can’t. … Some folks we lost, but others did their best work that month.”

Learning the ropes

One stumbling block for Moore in launching MANA was his lack of experience leading a company, let alone one in the food industry, which is rife with potential safety issues.

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Boxes of MANA, waiting to be shipped

“I used to keep a folder on my desktop called ‘How to be a CEO,’” he recalls. From day one, he looked to other executives in the food industry for their expertise. Whenever he met a fellow CEO, he would ask about the most important thing they had learned about running a company.

“Once, I was with the former CEO of Hershey. I’d gone up there for some meetings and to get their help with food safety,” Moore says. “I was asking that question, and [he said,] ‘You’ve got to hire really smart people who are not jerks. … Smart people are not that hard to find. But find smart people who are not jerks, because one jerk ruins everything.’”

That advice became one of the main tenets of Moore’s leadership philosophy, he says. “Don’t be a jerk to people — if you show up late all the time, that would be a jerky thing to do. If you don’t pick up trash, that’s another one. Why would you walk past trash? Pick it up. The unfortunate thing is, we are all human, so we are sometimes jerks. So when you are, just apologize and have a sense of awareness. You’ve got to pick the right people who can fit into that.”

In terms of hiring, that means likeability is a major factor. “I think about, if I someday sit in my office and look up and this person is there, am I happy to see them?” says Moore.

Lining up the experts

Harry Broughton

Harry Broughton

Of course, MANA also hires for expertise in the food industry. The company’s first factory manager was a veteran of Hershey, which, as the producer of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, has experience handling peanut safety, Moore notes.

MANA’s current factory manager, Harry Broughton, joined the company in April 2016 and is also a veteran of the peanut industry.

Of Moore and Harmon, Broughton says, “these two guys who had a missionary background … getting into the food business is an extremely aggressive thing to do. I’m extremely impressed with what they’ve been able to do in a short period of time.”

Moore and Harmon take food safety seriously, Broughton notes. “If you don’t get food right, you could potentially hurt someone. And I think as the company has grown and got more distribution around the world, [Moore and Harmon] started looking for people with food experience, and started going out and sourcing those types of people.”

Broughton adds that while Moore was new to the food industry when he launched MANA, his vision and work ethic carried him to success. “I think probably everybody told him it couldn’t be done, and it just didn’t bother him,” says Broughton. “He just kept on plugging away, and the guy is constantly developing ideas.”

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A truck bearing the MANA logo

Moore’s big vision sometimes puts him at odds with Harmon. “We’re best friends, but we also fight like cats and dogs,” says Harmon. “We are really candid with one another in our opinion about strategic things.”

Moore doesn’t micro-manage, or hold a lot of structured meetings, Harmon says. “He’s really good about letting you go and take risks. They work or they don’t work, but we’ll get back up.”

Early on, Moore was adamant about building more capacity at the factory than was needed immediately, Harmon recalls. “At times, I really thought it was a mistake, but he has been dead on,” he says. “The thing about Mark is, he’s usually wrong until he’s right. Had we not made that call, we would have really lost an opportunity” to fill a big order.

“So that happens once or twice a year,” Harmon says. “There are decisions made, you can’t convince [Moore] otherwise, and nine out of 10 times, they’re the right call. He’s kind of planning two or three moves ahead.”

Indeed, Moore has big plans for the future of MANA.

“[2016] is going to be a record year, so growth is coming our way,” he says. “Expansion is on the horizon for us, and we’re talking about adding on to our facility. That will increase our ability to make the product.”

“The great irony is that we’re in this market we hope goes away,” says Harmon. Every day, at their factory in Georgia’s peanut country and their corporate office in suburban Charlotte, Moore and his team are working away at it.

The future is in the (calorie) cloud

In leading MANA Nutrition, CEO Mark Moore started to mull over a problem that was curtailing the company’s impact: There is tremendous demand for the company’s fortified food, but not enough money to meet that demand.

“There’s $200 million out there to buy what we make,” Moore estimates. “But there’s at least a $1 billion need. So how do we come up with the $800 million?”

Moore’s idea is to do it with an organization called Calorie Cloud. Started by MANA’s founders, Calorie Cloud’s goal is to “harvest” the calories of people who are trying to lose weight and turn them into funding to distribute MANA’s food. According to the Calorie Cloud website, the organization creates “platforms to quantify and monetize the physical activity of adults and kids all over the world. Calories collected on our platforms, by kids and adults being active, are converted into [ready-to-use therapeutic food] for children suffering from [severe acute malnutrition].”

For example, Calorie Cloud has partnered with UNICEF on something called the Kid Power program. The program includes a Fibit-like band that tracks kids’ activity. “Once they meet step goals, it awards them points, which translate to real food packages that UNICEF sends to malnourished children all over the globe (funded in part by sales of the device),” according to Time magazine, which just named the Kid Power Band one of its “25 best inventions of 2016.”

“We started two years ago and spun out one of our main guys here to kind of champion it,” says Moore. “I think something like that has got to be the future, because we can’t just sit around. … Americans spend billions of dollars trying to lose weight. If we could tap into that, it would almost be like carbon trading.”